Friday, August 31, 2012

Fantasy Football, Naval Gunnery, NASA

Greetings! Time for another trip through what’s on my mind these days. These days it’s back to school time for the kids, shopping around for insurance, and finishing up the first draft of my first non-WotC novel. Hopefully I’ll something interesting to report on that front in a few more weeks—we’ll see!

I’m participating in my first Fantasy Football league this year. I’ve played Roto baseball for years and years, but this is my first foray into a new sport. I drew draft position #9 in a 10-player league, which sort of bummed me out a little. But we used a snaking draft, so at least I got picks 9 and 12 out of the first 20, then picks 29 and 32, and so on. I figured out the clever ploy of trying to start a “run” with my second pick in any pair, trying to lessen the pain of that long eighteen picks between my selections. I’m proud to say I managed to start runs on tight ends and defenses—there’s nothing like watching four or five of those picks follow *after* I just made one.

Long and short of it: The Fightin’ Geoducks wound up with Matthew Stafford and Darren McFaddon as my first two picks. Victor Cruz is my top receiver, and I indulged in a couple of “homer” picks with the Eagles defense and receiver Jeremy Maclin. I think I did pretty good overall, although I don’t like my receivers all that much. We’ll see how it goes!

Gaming: I’ve been thinking a little more about Richard Baker’s Naval Game, and what I would do different from Axis & Allies Naval Miniatures. I’m not serious about this quite yet, but I thought I’d share a couple of thoughts about a gunnery system, since I know a few of you War at Sea types follow my blog and might enjoy it.

The AANM system rolls fire volume, accuracy, and armor penetration all together into an overall “effectiveness of fire” roll. That’s pretty simple, but it means that the only real knob you can turn to differentiate between attacks is to give them more or less dice—and increasing the attack dice from Unit A and Unit B might mean that you’re trying to model a ship with more gun barrels, or more accurate guns, or bigger guns with better armor penetration. It doesn’t really let you deal with historical subtleties such as the difficulty 8” heavy cruisers had hitting destroyers, or the fact that a ship mounting fifteen 6” guns didn’t have any advantage in armor penetration over a ship mounting six 6” guns. It would be satisfying to gearheads like me to improve the simulation value of the game by creating a system that accommodated those subtleties. That suggests separating the tests of accuracy and hitting power, and then further differentiating between 4-gun broadsides and 12-gun broadsides of otherwise similar guns.

So, here’s a straightforward way to approach gunnery:

-        Volume of fire is represented by the number of dice you roll

-        Accuracy of attack and difficulty of hitting the target are measured by your hit chance on each die

-        If you score a hit, you test the hitting power of the gun against the armor of the target

Putting a large number of shells in the air should generate more hit chances than a lower number of shells, so reflecting that by rolling more individual attack dice seems like a good start. Some ratio of number of barrels to attack dice would make sense; if Montana threw twice as many attack dice with its 12-gun broadside as Repulse with its 6-gun broadside, that would be intuitive. I don’t think you would want 1 die per barrel, simply because the Boise’s 15-gun broadside is pretty ridiculous at that point, but maybe it would be okay. This approach also lets us model arcs of fire and the advantage of “crossing the T” quite nicely—a ship’s guns don’t become individually less accurate or lose armor penetration when only a few of them bear on a target.

In a perfect world, we’d also roll rate of fire into that fire volume measurement. The Iowa could fire about eighteen 16” rounds per minute, but the Fletcher could fire about a hundred and twenty 5” rounds. Presumably the Fletcher should roll five times as many attack dice as the Iowa to reflect that… but I suspect it wouldn’t be fun to roll buckets of dice for little individual effect. For now, let’s set rate of fire aside, and tell ourselves that we might use a “Low, Average, High ROF” modification of some sort that isn’t a pure mathematical conversion.

Attack accuracy is your chance for any particular attack die to score a hit. There should be two basic measurements here: How accurate the gun is, and how hard to hit the target is. My idea for handling this is pretty simple: Your gun provides you X chances to score a hit, and the target provides you Y chances to score a hit. Add X and Y, and you get a target number for your attack. For example, let’s say a destroyer is target size 1 and a battleship is target size 5. Shoot at the destroyer with an accuracy 2 gun, and you have 3 hit numbers; shoot at the battleship, and you have 7 hit numbers. The die size could be anything we want—a d10 would bias the system toward rapid resolution of gunnery duels, but a d100 would probably be more historically accurate. Let’s say d20 for now, and just see how that works out.

I prefer to encourage people to roll high in games, so we’d actually flip the numbers around: We’d want to create a LOW target number and call it a hit when you roll that number or higher. So we’d rate guns for INACCURACY on a 5 to 10 scale, and targets for EVASIVENESS on a 5 to 10 scale. In this world, a highly accurate gun is a 5, and an easy target is a 5. So shooting at a battleship might be 5 and 5, creating a target number of 10—any roll of 10 or better on a d20 is a hit. Shooting a destroyer with an inaccurate gun might be 10 and 10, creating a target number of 20—you only hit on a roll of 20 on a d20.

Accuracy should drop off with range, so we could probably use a global rule like “–1 penalty to attack rolls number per hex of range,” and it would be pretty reasonable. You could even create “spotting in” systems that give you a “+1 bonus to attack rolls per turn of firing on the same target.”

All right, so we know how to reflect volume of fire and attack accuracy. Each attack die will generate a miss or a hit. Misses we ignore, of course. But each hit can now be tested for its effect on the target. This is where a destroyer gun generally fails against a battleship—it might be comparatively easy to put 5” shells on the target, but they just won’t do much to it. Likewise, one battleship-caliber hit might be enough to wreck a destroyer. Off the top of my head, I think you could something as simple as a damage roll compared to target armor. A destroyer might have a damage roll of 1d4 and an Armor of 2, a battleship might be 4d6 and Armor 10. Damage rolls that are less than the target Armor are ignored. Damage rolls equal to target Armor or higher do “1 box” of damage. Damage rolls that greatly exceed target Armor might do “more than 1 box” of damage, or even have a chance to sink the target outright (the Bismarck vs. the Hood scenario).

I’d like to rate ships for Side Armor and Deck Armor, while we’re at it, and have long-range attacks (and aircraft bombs!) compared to Deck Armor instead of Side Armor. American heavy guns excelled in plunging fire penetration; German and Italian guns tended to be high-velocity and did well in close-range Side penetration. That might be covered with a couple of Special Abilities, like “Heavy Shells, +2 damage at range X and higher” or “Hi-Velocity Guns, +2 damage at range 1 or 2.”

Other than that, I’m afraid I don’t have much worked out in my head about ship durability and effects of damage. I’d like to figure out some way for a destroyer’s hit on a battleship to have a small chance to cause a surprisingly serious problem—say, starting a fire, knocking out a secondary battery, causing a power outage, or something along those lines. It didn’t happen often historically, but it did happen. Maybe I’ll put on my thinking cap and ponder that until my next blog entry.

Politics/Current Events: Neil Armstrong’s passing should serve as a wake-up call for America about the state of our manned space program. It’s not that hard to imagine in 2012 that we might eventually come to the day when there are no living human beings left who walked on the Moon. In 1972, that notion would have been completely unthinkable. NASA has been absolutely floundering for almost twenty years now. We don’t even have the ability to put a man in orbit now, nor are we likely to be able to any time in the next ten years or so. That is absolutely RIDICULOUS. It is a staggering failure of leadership and vision.

NASA’s current budget is about $17 billion per year. Here are a few things the government spends more money on than our space program: The Department of Agriculture gets $27 billion a year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development gets $49.8 billion, and the Department of Education gets $78.9 billion. (Why do we even have a federal Department of Education? ) And that’s not even looking at the immense spending of the Department of Defense (over $737 billion), Medicare ($500 billion), Social Security ($767 billion), or simple interest ($261 billion). How hard would it be to triple NASA’s budget and shave $10 billion apiece off three other agencies or functions? And wouldn’t it be worthwhile to do so?

Make me dictator for a day, and I promise you this: A new orbiter in 5 years, and a return to the Moon in 10 years. The cost is chump change compared to the other things we spend money on.  
The Finer Things: Elvis Costello. I’ve been listening to a lot of his older stuff in the last few days (Punch the Clock, King of America, The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions). Man, he was a great songwriter back in the day, and I loved the mellow jazz/crooner groove he got into with Burt Bacharach about ten years ago.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Three Games I Want to See

Welcome back! Not much new to report as far as professional updates: I already told you all about Prince of Ravens last month. My next publication is going to be in Thornkeep, a Paizo sourcebook created for the Pathfinder Online kickstarter. It’s a good bit of town-building with a hundred great adventure ideas built into the place; keep your eyes peeled!

I’ve also recently done some work with The Sundering, the big Forgotten Realms story event announced at GenCon this year. I’m afraid I can’t say much about my part in the Sundering, since my contribution hasn’t been announced yet. But I think it’s some pretty interesting stuff, and I pulled in a ton of old Realmslore to piece it all together.

Gaming: One of my favorite distractions to engage in is the “What game would I create if I could do anything I wanted?” I have this idea that if I ever win the lottery, I’ll establish a little gaming company that has no particular purpose other than to do things I’m interested in, and provide me with a dozen or so hours of great gaming every week. We’d print a couple of games a year, and to hell with whether they make money or not—remember, in this scenario I’m already rich because I won the lottery. Anyway, here are three things I’d like to do, Just Because.

7th Fleet 2013: I’m a huge fan of Victory Games’ old “Fleet” titles – 2nd Fleet, 6th Fleet, etc. Speaking as a former naval officer, they had pretty high sim value. And speaking as a fan of strategy games, they had some really elegant mechanics for organizing the game turn, handling formation defense, and dealing with detection as a critical part of modern naval warfare. Well, the bad news is that all of those games were focused on the Soviet Union as the primary adversary, and the most recent of them is now close to 20 years out of date. So what I want to see is an updated 7th Fleet that zeroes in on East Asia—the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Korean peninsula—and takes a serious hard look at China’s navy and all the new assets for the USN, the PLAN, and Japan’s MDF. Believe it or not, I don’t think this would be that hard to do; the basic game engine is fine, all you need to do is work up a new map, produce a new order of battle, stat out some new units, and think up some interesting scenarios.

War at Sea 1914: I’m also a big fan of the old Avalon Hill titles War at Sea and Victory in the Pacific. I’d love to work up a strategic game based on that engine to cover the confrontation of the Triple Entente and Central Powers navies. I think it would be a blast to play for control of the North Sea, the Dardanelles, the Baltic, and the Adriatic. It would be especially interesting if some events like Italian belligerence were not a given; the Austrian fleet looks a lot tougher if the Italians aren’t involved. A few blog posts back, I speculated about good task force rules for Victory in the Pacific; it would be pretty cool to put ‘em in play here. Not being guaranteed of bringing your whole line of battle into play would make the North Sea standoff a lot more interesting. Again, the game engine is there: All you have to do is figure out the order of battle and provide very simple stats for a whole lot of dreadnoughts.

A Coherent Campaign Setting: One of my big regrets about my time with TSR and Wizards of the Coast is that the company abandoned the idea of creating new worlds. On the very rare occasions when new worlds were created, there was so much riding on the concept that creatively we felt obligated to try to include something for everybody. It’s sort of pre-kitchen-sinking your setting, and I think it really dilutes the clarity and usability of the work. Someday I’m going to sit down and write up a campaign setting that stays on message and delivers the hell out of a single design vision. Worlds like Al-Qadim, Dark Sun, and Planescape did that; some other worlds don’t. I often argued that Wizards of the Coast ought to publish a decent, middle-of-the-fairway standard medieval fantasy world again, just to see if people were interested in seeing new iterations of that sort of idea. But I never could talk ‘em into it.

Anyway, there are three games I want to do someday. I’ve got a few more on the list, but those are the ones I occasionally design in my head when I’m stuck in traffic or walking the dog.

Politics/Current Events: I had an interesting conversation with my wife and daughters the other day. Here’s the lead-in: Are the Boy Scouts of America a hate group because they exclude gays? There are a lot of people who would unequivocally answer that question “Yes.” I’m not so sure. I think in America we seem to be forgetting what REAL hate groups look like, and what sorts of things they do. Are Boy Scout troops hiding in alleyways, waiting to lynch gays? Are they burning down gay-owned businesses? Are they burning crosses on the lawns of gays’ homes? That’s what real hate looks like. If you throw around terms like “hate group” or “racist” and use them on everybody you disagree with, you dilute the meaning of the words. To put it another way: When everyone is a hate group, no one is a hate group.

I think the Boy Scouts are more wrong than right, since I don’t think anyone should be worked up about gays in 21st century America. But they’re a private organization, and I wouldn’t call them a hate group just because they don’t hold the opinion I do.

The Finer Things: I’ve only watched a couple of episodes so far, but Longmire on A&E is a darned good television show. Robert Taylor plays the sheriff; other cast members include Lou Diamond Phillips and Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica).  I’ve always had a soft spot for Westerns; it’s nice to see a good crime drama with interesting characters set out west. Check out an episode or two, and see if you agree!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Empires of the Middle Ages, Romney's VP Pick

Hi, there! Sorry I’m a day late, but summers in the Northwest don’t last forever, and when you get a stretch of good weather, you don’t want to spend too much time banging away on the computer keyboard. Anyway, for this week’s posting on Atomic Dragon Battleship: A look at one of my favorite old games, and a brief thought or two about Paul Ryan.

Gaming: One of the benefits of working at a game company for a significant number of years was the pretty much ever-present availability of a lunchtime game. At TSR or WotC I could almost always count on being able to set up a game on a “safe” table somewhere in a little-used conference room or an out-of-the-way corner, and rounding up half a dozen of my coworkers to knock down big games that might require 10 or 20 hours of playtime one lunch-hour at a time. It’s a highly civilized habit that would improve many workplaces, I suspect. Anyway, one of our perennial favorites, a game we dusted off and played at least once a year or so, was the old SPI “Empires of the Middle Ages.”

“Empires” is interesting for a number of reasons. First, the mapboard was cleverly designed for its day and age (hexes were pretty much the standard in the mid-80s). Second, it’s a game that’s about managing decline and catastrophe. It’s very common for all the players to wind up in worse positions at the end of the game than they held at the beginning, because they’re constantly savaged by negative events such as Leader Dies Heirless, Epidemic, Outbreak of Heresy, and obnoxious NPCs called magnates who appear at random and attack everything around them. Finally, the basic resolution system is tilted toward stagnation; the average ruler taking an average action has something close to a 50% failure rate, so you spend many turns not getting anything done at all. With that description, you might wonder why anybody plays “Empires of the Middle Ages” at all. Well, there are a couple of reasons: The game is enough of an opponent that you don’t feel compelled to constantly screw with the other players, so in a way it’s an early peek at a cooperative us-against-the-AI game. Secondly, there is a wonderful dose of schadenfreude to be savored in watching your neighbor’s kingdoms fall into pieces, and plenty of gallows humor when you learn, over and over again, that things can always get worse.

The resolution system of “Empires” is pretty interesting: Your base effectiveness for any action is your leader’s personal stature, which can be 1, 2, 3, 5, or 9. Your leader is rated for Combat, Administration, and Diplomacy. You can take one of five basic actions each turn: Conquest, Pillage, Rule, Fortify, or Diplomacy. Each of those different actions is based on one of your leader stats. So if you want to conquer or pillage something, you’ll use your leader’s Combat status, but if you want to try ruling or fortifying a territory, you use Administration. You modify your active stat based on various conditions like the overall social state rating of the province (is it a wealthy little center of civilization, or a miserable forgotten backwater?) and things like language, religion, and other situational modifiers. Then you flip a Year Card and compare the result to your modified effectiveness. A typical result on the card might read something like “C 3+, -1 SS 5-“ which would mean you achieve a Conquest result if your effectiveness was 3 or better, and the area you launched the attack from takes a -1 hit on its Social State if your effectiveness was 5 or less. The card-based resolution system encodes a ton of information in a pretty efficient little presentation.

Anyway, the big lesson I learned about playing “Empires of the Middle Ages” over the years was simply this: Play to your strengths. If you have a 5-1-2 in Combat, Administration, Diplomacy, you should NEVER bother with taking actions that don’t use your combat stature, no matter how much you think the game situation calls for administering or diplomacy. The success chances are just miserable if you’re trying to do things with a value of 1 or 2 instead of 5, so you ride your best score as long as you can. I think that lesson might apply to a number of other board games—if you’re good at some particular type of action, you should do that over and over again and take what the game gives you.

One more note… the Decision Games version of “Empires” that appeared in 2004 isn’t quite the same game. The mapboard is more appealing, but it turns out that it’s easier to record province social state on a sliding track (as in the original game) than to keep hunting for the right social state chit over and over again. The new buildings introduced in their advanced rules are generally not balanced well, and the scenarios award them to some positions but not others with no VP handicap adjustment. Finally, the event deck is filled with minor leaders that almost never match up with the player who draws one. Pick up this version if you can’t find the original SPI game or if your SPI copy wears out, and be prepared to do some significant marking up to improve the play.

Politics/Current Events: I like Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan for vice president. Ryan is one of the most interesting politicians in the country for one simple reason: The man had the guts to say what he thinks needs to be done, and put it in writing. *Nobody* else has dared to provide a detailed plan of what they would do with tax rates and entitlements to improve the fiscal footing of the country—everyone else sticks to empty platitudes. You might think that Ryan is gravely mistaken about which steps are necessary, but at least you know what specific steps he’s proposing. Maybe, just maybe, we can actually have a serious conversation about the “third rail” issues like Medicare and Social Security in this election. Whether you think the Republicans are right or wrong, it’s clear to me that NOTHING can happen, one way or the other, until the conversation at least begins. Ryan’s budget is a place to start. Now I’d like to see what the Democrats’ counter-plan looks like, so we can compare and contrast. As voters, we should *insist* that the Democrats tell us what they would do differently from Ryan instead of simply telling us that his plan is wrong.

The Finer Things: Convertibles and sunny days. I went hiking with my friend Warren up at the Olympic National Park (the Staircase entrance, in the southeast corner), and we drove all the way back to Auburn with the top down on my Mustang. Pure automotive bliss.